Tag Archives: Zoltán Balog

Should Hungarian-speaking Roma students be educated in Hungarian schools in Slovakia and Romania?

Zoltán Balog, Viktor Orbán’s minister of human resources, is in the news again. Regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum know by now that Balog normally makes headlines when he says or does something that the public finds objectionable. Over the last seven years he has acquired the reputation of being a less than caring man which, given his pre-political life as an ordained Hungarian Reformed minister, is jarring to say the least.

After his last interview, with his ill-chosen words about the lack of CT and MRI machines in the National Cardiology Institute, several articles about the head of the Emberi Erőforrások Minisztériuma or, as he is often called, the “emberminiszter” (human minister) appeared. But lately one can hear people talking about the “embertelen miniszter” (inhuman minister).

The most interesting of these articles appeared in 168 Óra. The piece is based on several interviews with Balog’s old friends and acquaintances. The picture of the man that emerges is pretty devastating. An old friend, László Donáth, a Lutheran minister, told the reporter that Balog owes him only a bottle beer after they bet on who is going to win the 2002 election, but there will be a day of reckoning when he will have to stand before the Lord. It will not be easy, Donáth added. Apparently, Balog lost most of his friends in 2006 when, after some hesitation, he chose politics instead of the church. Balog’s father, also a minister, told him, “My son, you became a politician because you were not good enough as a minister.”

His former subordinates describe him as a man who craves praise and constantly brags about his awards and accomplishments. He doesn’t tolerate criticism. He is often harsh toward his subordinates and tries to make them scapegoats in order to cover up his own mistakes. As an unnamed former employee said, “I am truly sorry that I cannot say much good about such an intelligent and talented man.”

Apparently, Balog’s devotion to Viktor Orbán and what he represents is genuine. According to a former parishioner, “Zoltán truly believes that Viktor Orbán is doing a job given to him by God and as prime minister he will make Hungary prosper again.” Balog apparently needed someone he could follow while Orbán needed someone who would assist him in reducing the amount of money spent on social welfare, education, and health. That’s why all these disparate fields were put under one ministry.

According to people in the know, only once did Balog try to say no to Orbán. It was at the time when the Orbán government decided to submit a new law on the churches. Balog told Orbán that he can’t support the bill without some amendments. Otherwise he will resign. Apparently, Orbán responded: “OK, write your resignation and tomorrow morning put it on my desk. I will sign it.” Balog quickly changed his mind. Apparently, after this minor incident their friendship became very strong and, it seems, enduring despite the fact that Orbán knows as well as anyone that Balog’s administrative talents don’t match the enormous tasks of his mega-ministry. Thus, in 2014, Orbán installed one of the Christian Democratic hardliners, Bence Rétvári, to actually run the ministry. Balog was reduced to the role of “drum major.”

Balog’s ill-chosen words on the state of Hungarian healthcare were barely uttered when a week later he managed to call attention to himself again. He was one of the participants in the three-day Fidesz extravaganza in Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad. According to the official program, Balog was the keynote speaker at a lecture and discussion on the “Idea of the Reformation and the Future of Europe.” After his lecture he joined a discussion group on the state of Hungarian youth both in Hungary and in the neighboring countries. Among the many topics, the quality of Hungarian schools in Romania and Slovakia came up. Balog told the audience that in Slovakia many Hungarian families don’t send their children to Hungarian schools because too many Gypsies attend them. He added that “neither the Hungarian communities nor the government has decided yet whether the Hungarian-speaking Gypsies are a burden or a resource. We must decide what we consider to be a Hungarian school.”

Béla Kató, Hungarian Reformed bishop of the church’s Transylvanian district, and Zoltán Balog, Tusnádfrürdő/Băile Tușnad

The government media, although it reported on the panel discussion, neglected to include Balog’s comments on the Orbán government’s ambivalent feelings toward Hungarian-speaking Gypsies in Slovakia and Romania. I did a quick check to find out how many people we are talking about. In Slovakia, of the half a million Hungarian speakers, researchers estimate that 60,000 are Gypsies, that is, a little more than 10%. The Roma population of Romania is very large. We are talking about perhaps as many as three million people. About 80,000-90,000 of them are Hungarian speaking.

The Orbán government is in a quandary: should they embrace the Roma on the basis of the common language or simply take away the opportunity for Hungarian language instruction, forcing them to attend Romanian or Slovak schools instead? I gather from Balog’s remarks on the Slovak situation, where non-Roma families would rather send their children to Slovak schools because of the presence of too many Gypsies in the Hungarian ones, that the Orbán government is inclined to get rid of “the burden” Hungarian-speaking Gypsies impose on the government in Budapest. We can safely say that they are approaching the question along racial lines. I might also add that Balog is a firm believer in segregated education for Roma children in Hungary. It doesn’t matter how many experts tell him that segregation leads to sure failure, Balog remains unconvinced. I might add that the segregation Balog advocates is unconstitutional and forbidden by many international agreements which Hungary signed.

Today an article appeared in 24.hu reminding Zoltán Balog and his Fidesz friends of the events of March 20, 1990 in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureș where Hungarian demonstrators were attacked by members of the nationalist Vatra Românească but Hungarian-speaking Gypsies came to the rescue. First, the Hungarians didn’t know who they were, but then one of them yelled: “Ne féljetek magyarok, mert itt vannak a cigányok!” (Don’t be afraid, Hungarians, because the Gypsies are here). If the Orbán government closes Hungarian schools to Hungarian-speaking Roma students in Slovakia and Romania, soon enough there won’t be any Gypsies to ride to the rescue. They’ll speak Slovak and Romanian and feel no ties to Hungary.

July 25, 2017

Is Zoltán Balog emotionally unfit to oversee the ministry of human resources?

It’s hard to pick the least sympathetic minister in Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, but Zoltán Balog, the former Calvinist minister, is definitely somewhere at the top of the list. Admittedly, my acquaintance with Calvinist ministers is limited, but I imagine that a good minister should be a compassionate human being who is ready to listen to the joys and sorrows of others. Someone who can offer solace. Someone who knows the meaning of empathy. Someone whose love of his fellow human beings is discernible in all his actions and words. Although I have never met him in person, when I think of a man who is the embodiment of the ideal clergyman it is Gábor Iványi who comes to mind, the Methodist minister whose church has been the victim of Viktor Orbán’s inexplicable hatred.

On the other hand, Orbán became very fond of Zoltán Balog, who joined the still liberal Fidesz party in 1991 as an adviser on church-related matters. In his student days and even later, Balog was highly critical of the conservative Hungarian Reformed Church and, in turn, the church hierarchy believed he should probably not become one of them. First, he was expelled from the Hungarian Reformed College of Debrecen and later from the Debrecen University of Reformed Theology. Although for a while he worked as a practicing minister, soon enough, after 1990, he drifted toward a political career. In 1993 and 1994 Viktor Orbán was refashioning the liberal Fidesz into a Christian Democratic party and was in need of people, Catholics as well as Protestants, who knew something about Christian churches.

By the time Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 1998 and Balog his chief adviser, Balog had abandoned his earlier liberal, even radical, ideas about relations between church and state and about a thorough revamping of the Hungarian Reformed Church. As time went by, he became more and more conservative, even radical in some ways. He was one of the first Fidesz critics of “politically correct” speech. He fought any legal restriction of “hate speech” and made some unfortunate remarks about the situation of the Roma when he claimed that the greatest danger the Gypsies face is not racism but hopelessness. Some of his earlier liberal friends didn’t know what to make of his sudden metamorphosis. One thing is sure. Balog today is one of the greatest apologists of the regime Viktor Orbán has built since 2010.

These are the bare facts of Balog’s transformation from Protestant minister to super minister of “human resources,” the person who is supposed to oversee education, health, sports, culture, churches, and family and youth. One would think that a former Protestant minister would be well suited to manage such human endeavors, yet over the years it became evident that Balog is singularly unfit for the job. Almost every time he opens his mouth he insults somebody or at least presents himself as an uncaring person.

Balog’s “mishaps” are too numerous to recount here, but I recommend my post from 2013 on the Hungarian Reformed Church Charity’s brilliant move of collecting 40 kids who live in poverty for a luxury dinner in the Budapest Hilton Hotel. They were served goose consomé with vegetables and rotini, chicken breast with a mushroom sauce prepared with Calvados, vegetable lasagna, broccoli, and rice. The dessert was yogurt strawberry cake. All this for kids who like pizza, hamburgers, and gyros. But then came the Reverend Balog’s speech in which explained that perhaps these children, when they have a job or “perhaps even go to college, who knows,” will be able to afford to eat in a restaurant like this. Or perhaps they will be able to visit Paris or Cluj/Kolozsvár. It was an incredible performance.

Since this incident, there were many others that demonstrated Balog’s insensitivity. For example, a couple of months ago at a gathering to celebrate the Day of the Ambulance Service he gave a speech at a breakfast meeting held in a relatively expensive restaurant in Budapest. It is a well-known fact that the members of the ambulance service receive shamelessly low salaries. Balog began his speech by cracking a “joke” about his audience whose members “eat breakfast here every day.” No one laughed.

More serious was when Balog and the newly appointed chief of the National Ambulance Service gave a press conference about the dreadful accident involving Hungarian high school students, 16 of whom burned to death in the bus near Verona. Balog introduced the new director by saying that “Gábor Csató just took over the leadership of the organization and it was a real baptism by fire, if one can say such a thing.” I guess one can, but one shouldn’t.

Balog made headlines a couple of days ago when he gave an interview on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk). He explained that Hungarian healthcare is not as bad as one would think after reading the Hungarian media, which entertains the public with fake news which in turn has a negative effect on healthcare itself. The conversation turned to the case of a little girl who was being operated on but since the Országos Kardiológiai Intézet (National Institute of Cardiology) doesn’t have a CT machine she had to be transported to another hospital in the middle of the operation. Balog saw no problem with this situation. At least there is another hospital to which she could be transported. Instead of talking about the lack of CT and MRI machines, the media should concentrate on the higher salaries doctors are getting thanks to the government. He seemed to be totally unsympathetic to the little girl’s plight, who died a few hours after she was transported to the other hospital.

Most likely the trip to another hospital was not the cause of the girl’s death, but people nonetheless felt that Balog’s reaction, as usual, was inappropriate to the occasion. HVG pointed out that there are two possibilities. First, Balog may have been unaware of the death of the patient about whom many articles had been written lately. Or, second, he knew about it and yet showed no sympathy or emotion. In the former case, he is not fit to be a cabinet minister, and in the latter, he is unfit to be a clergyman.

July 13, 2017

The Budapest Family Summit: A gathering of the far right

A few days ago I ended one of my posts by declaring that the present Hungarian government is a far-right formation and that it’s time for the western media to recognize this fact. Unfortunately, there are still far too many publications that keep referring to Fidesz and the Orbán government as a nationalistic, right-of-center, or conservative, party and government. I’m afraid they are wrong.

Some observers insist that the Viktor Orbán-led Fidesz has no definable ideology. The Hungarian prime minister is simply an opportunistic populist and a cynic, they claim. Maybe, but I find it striking that on April 26, when Viktor Orbán delivered his speech to the European Parliament in defense of his policies, only members of the far-right parties came to his support. All the others, including members of the European People’s Party, condemned his self-declared illiberal state and his systemic degradation of the country’s democratic institutions.

A good example of the ideological orientation of the regime is the Hungarian government’s embrace of the World Congress of Families (WCF). I already wrote about the forthcoming four-day pro-family extravaganza on May 11, but now that it is over I think we should take a second look.

I will start with some critical foreign reactions to the WCF’s holding its eleventh summit in Budapest. Right-Wing Watch called this year’s summit “part of a global struggle for achieving the group’s goals: restricting legal recognition for LGBTQ people and families, denying women legal access to abortion, and opposing sex education.” According to Right-Wing Watch, the organizers “picked Hungary as a way to show support for the government of strongman leader Viktor Orbán, whom WCF calls “the hero of pro-family and pro-life leaders.” The short article is accompanied by a long list of participants, including Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, who last year said that Hillary Clinton wanted to “usher in the Antichrist.” The Guardian quoted Lóránt Győri, a political scientist, who said that “this is not normal conservative politics.” Because of the WCF’s connection to the Russian far right, he believes that “there’s a geopolitical angle which is about Russia and the Kremlin trying to sell its message. The Kremlin uses [groups like] the WCF to assert its soft power in central European society.” And, most importantly, “by elevating this conference to a state-level event, we now can almost see that Fidesz is positioning itself as a far-right party.”

When I first discovered that members of the Hungarian government attended the Moscow Summit in 2014, I thought that perhaps Zoltán Balog and his team had not been fully aware of the ideological make-up of the WCF and its questionable connections to Russian oligarchs. Perhaps they didn’t know the unsavory reputation of this group. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Balog and his undersecretary in charge of family affairs, Katalin Novák, have had close contacts with the group for some time. No mistake here, the Hungarian government surely knew what kind of a group they had invited and sponsored.

Those who follow Hungarian news are only too aware of the reluctance of members of the Orbán government to give interviews, especially to media they consider to be unfriendly. But Balog appeared on RTL Klub’s evening news about two weeks before the opening of the Summit, denying that the WCF is a homophobic organization. As far as he was concerned, “an awful lot of stupid stories appeared about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” Any organization the Hungarian government has contacts with is “considered to be a reliable partner.” Well, I guess that depends on whom the government considers reliable. Obviously those who share the government’s views.

It was not a long time ago that I said a few approving words about Heti Válasz’s more independent political orientation and its abandonment of the government propaganda line they had been toeing way after Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV decided to return to acceptable journalistic practices. However, one of their journalists, Szilárd Szőnyi, got into an argument with 444.hu, which had published a long article about the checkered past of the WCF with special emphasis on the fact that “the Congress supported the Russian anti-gay law.” Szőnyi admitted that it wouldn’t pass muster in the “western world.” But, he added, 90% of Russian society supports the law,” it has an overwhelming democratic mandate, so I gather there is nothing wrong with it.

A few days later Válasz reported that Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist best known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, had distanced himself from the WCF. Zimbardo delivered his lecture not to the gathering of the WCF but to the Budapest Demographic Forum, which was a serious international conference on demographics. The problem was that the World Congress of Families XI, the Budapest Demographic Forum, and the One of Us Pro-Life Conference were all held together under the rubric “The Budapest Family Summit.” Viktor Orbán opened the Budapest Demographic Forum while Zoltán Balog and Katalin Novák opened the conference of the WCF. There may have been two distinct affairs held at different venues, but the whole weekend had a distinctively far-right hue which, I’m afraid, overshadowed even the professional gathering of the Demographic Forum.

One of the participants in the WCF gathering was Beatrix von Storch, the AfD member of the European Parliament, who gave a long interview to Magyar Hírlap. Let’s keep in mind that she was one of the few far-right EP members who spoke in defense of Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic policies. In fact, she was the one who extended an apology in the name of the European Parliament for the way they treated the Hungarian prime minister.

During the course of the interview she complained that in Germany a conference like this one, sponsored by the government, couldn’t be held. The topics the speakers covered couldn’t be discussed in Germany. For example, “there was a discussion at the conference about the correlation between the educational attainment of children and their church attendance.” That would be a taboo topic. If she organized a conference like that, no government official would think of attending. “In addition, at least 500-1,000 policemen would be needed to defend us against aggressive far-left demonstrators.” Von Storch claimed in the interview that her car had been set on fire because she spoke up for “traditional marriages.”

As far as the opposition parties are concerned, they paid no attention to the event, with the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció’s László Sebián-Petrovszki, who is the leader of the party’s LGBTQ working group. He labelled the concept of “family” propagated by the Family Summit hopelessly out of date. It narrows the concept of family to what the group calls “the natural family,” which means a heterosexual couple whose association serves only one purpose: biological reproduction. The demographic message of this family extravagance was utterly unrealistic, and Viktor Orbán’s speech about the government’s method for remedying the demographic shortfall was based on wishful thinking. To quote Zsuzsanna Makay, a demographer, “1980 was the last time there was a higher birth rate than death rate. To get back to a positive population growth [assuming there is neither immigration nor migration], an additional 30,000 babies [over and above the 2016 birth rate of 93,100] would have to be born every year. This is simply impossible to achieve.” The rest is just talk at far-right conferences on family values and reproduction.

May 30, 2017

CEU: New York State vs. Hungarian legal gobbledygook

It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”

Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.

It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.

The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”

A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:

The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.

The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.

The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.

The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.

The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.

The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.

The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.

An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.

This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.

Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months after the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”

If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.

May 24, 2017

An American LGBT hate group will enjoy the hospitality of the Orbán government

This is not the first time that I’m writing about the World Congress of Families. Through its annual gatherings, each year in a different country, WCF, as it is known in the United States, promotes Christian right-wing family values internationally. WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-LGBT hate group in February 2014 based on its involvement in the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law.

My earlier piece focused on its congress three years ago. The congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the fall of 2014, but then came the annexation of Crimea and several U.S. organizations pulled out of the project. Nonetheless, the congress proceeded as planned. Several leaders of right-wing European parties attended and were among the speakers, people like Aymeric Chauprade (National Front) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). Hungary was represented by Gergely Prőhle, who was one of the speakers at the gathering. The journalist for Cink.hu who wrote an article about this far-right gathering was told by the ministry that the Hungarian government doesn’t care who took part in the conference; Prőhle was there to represent the government’s family policy. I should add that the congress issued a manifesto lambasting liberal Europe and calling for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

WCF is again in the news, this time for its impending gathering in Budapest between May 25 and May 28. Átlátszó published a lengthy article about the Orbán government’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. I was already stunned in 2014 because I thought that the Hungarian government’s official representation at such a conference was inappropriate. Now, in 2017, the Orbán government is actually organizing and financially supporting the affair. According to the official site, the chief organizer of the event is Katalin Novák, undersecretary for family, youth, and international affairs.

The event’s site explains that “the values of accepting life, undertaking to give birth to and raise children, and families based on the marriage of a man and a woman have been compromised in the past decades but need to be restored in order to implement a sustainable future.” WCF’s goal is the spread of the idea of the “natural family” as opposed to households where children are cared for by single parents or grandparents or are brought up in same-sex marriages. The group is well known for its anti-LGBT propaganda. Its influence is especially strong in Africa, where several countries’ anti-LGBT legislation resulted from WCF’s lobbying efforts. Most notably, it helped inspire harsh anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda.

Just last year the director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, was elected president of WCF, which was seen as “a logical trajectory for Brown, one of the best-known anti-LGBT activists in the United States.” According to the announcement of his appointment by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Brown over the past few years has gradually refocused his opposition to marriage equality on international work, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Brown’s ideas find fertile soil in Hungarian government circles. SPLC gave a good summary of Brown’s ideas and checkered career at the time of his appointment as president of WCF.

Brian Brown, president of WCF / Source: AP Images

WCF’s platform is bad enough. But perhaps even more worrisome is its close cooperation with Russian nationalists, serving Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In fact, the World Congress of Families has its roots in Moscow. In 1995 the leader of an Illinois-based group, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was invited to Russia by two professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The three men agreed that unfavorable demographic trends were the result of feminism and homosexuality. So, they came up with the idea of “pro-family” conferences in Europe and Russia and agreed to share their ideas with American evangelical thinkers.

WCF has had its greatest influence in Russia. It has deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Apparently, WCF has nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin and his policies. One its leaders wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.” Another leader called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests … than … that mythical force known as world opinion.”

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization in the United States, put together a comprehensive history of WCF, in which a chapter is devoted to Eastern Europe. In the region it was Poland that was most eager to welcome WCF. The Polish government hosted WCF’s annual gathering in 2007, during the brief tenure of Jarosław Kaczyński as prime minister of Poland. The group made its first excursion into Serbia in 2013, where WCF leaders attended an anti-LGBT rally which led to the cancellation of the Belgrade Pride Parade. A year later they organized a regional conference in Kiev. In 2014 a WCF partner, Alliance Defending Freedom, submitted an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia supporting the proposed referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. They are also active in Albania, Latvia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In Hungary there was no need to lobby for a restriction of the meaning of marriage because the Orbán government incorporated it into the new constitution.

Looking through the very thorough history of WCF by the Human Rights Campaign, I found only two countries outside of Russia–namely, Poland and Hungary–where the organization has received official support. Suggestions by the independent media in Hungary that WCF is actually a homophobic hate organization were swept aside by Zoltán Balog, who is obviously a great supporter of the organization. According to Balog, “all sorts of nonsense has been published about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” The Hungarian government certainly would not participate in any event that spreads hatred of LGBT people. He proudly announced that at the end of May Budapest will be the capital of families.

Hungary has its own conference on the family, the Budapest Demographic Forum—Families in Focus, which held its first gathering in June 2015. This year the Budapest Demographic Forum will hold its second conference in conjunction with WCF’s annual gathering. The Forum’s keynote speaker will be Viktor Orbán himself. A former Spanish minister of interior and the Croatian and Polish ministers responsible for family affairs will attend. Thus, an allegedly scientific gathering on demographics is subsumed into a four-day WCF extravaganza. Further and further down a very slippery slope.

May 11, 2017

The Hungarian government and transparency: The case of the mentally disabled

On April 18, 2017, Pablo Gorondi, Budapest correspondent for the Associated Press, reported that the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), after visiting Topház Otthon (Top House Home) in Göd, 30 km from Budapest, a state-run institution for people with mental and physical disabilities, called for the closure of the institution. They uncovered signs of ill-treatment and malnutrition in the run-down facilities of the institution that houses 220 children and adults. Steven Allen, the group’s campaign director, said that “the conditions, abusive practice and evidence of violence … are the result of systematic failings in law, policy and regulation and a lack of effective and independent monitoring.” The report also pointed out that, according to the Central Statistical Office, there are some 25,000 people in Hungary with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues who have been placed in state institutions. The Hungarian government estimates that it would take 19 years to move these people to smaller homes. In addition to Gorondi, Nick Thorpe of BBC also filed a report about the “shocking conditions” found in the “home,” although he attached the opinion of an official of the Office of the Commissioner for Equal Rights who claims that “Topház is an extreme case.”

Of course, we have no idea whether this is really true since gaining access to these facilities is extremely difficult. Instead of going into the details of the terrible conditions found in all the wards MDAC visited, I will concentrate on the difficulties MDAC encountered in trying to gain access to Topház. Given the reluctance of the officials in charge of these facilities, they must be well aware of the conditions inside the walls of these institutions. Otherwise they wouldn’t prevent monitoring teams from entering the premises. Moreover, it is unlikely that Topház is an extreme case because investigative journalists over the years have called attention to similar problems at other facilities.

From the descriptions I read, the problems are systemic. One problem is that these institutions are regarded as “warehouses away from the public gaze,” as MDAC’s report aptly described their function. The mentally disabled are put there to be out of sight until they die. And they die with great frequency. When the associates of MDAC arrived, there was a black flag flying alongside the Hungarian national colors. What happens to those who die without a family to pay for a funeral I have no idea, but I was struck by the story a local told the reporter of Magyar Nemzet who visited the town after the release of MDAC’s report–that one of the employees of the institution became so attached to a patient that she herself took care of the funeral arrangements.

The facility, an old mansion, is ill-suited to its present function, and one doubts that any renovation has taken place since 1978 either inside or outside. Apparently, the size of the staff is totally inadequate, which results in confining people to their beds with all the adverse effects of such confinement. Psychiatric counseling is not available on site. The patients’ dental hygiene is deplorable. One could go on and on. All in all, the Hungarian state simply doesn’t spend enough money to maintain decent facilities for the mentally disabled.

The poverty of these institutions raises a vexing question. Topház and other similar institutions have received financing from European structural and investment funds administered by the Hungarian government. MDAC recommended that the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) open an audit and investigation into a breach of fundamental rights in the use of European funding. Considering the amount of corruption in Hungary, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the money that was supposed to be used to improve the facilities and the lives of their residents ended up in the pockets of those handling the funds.

Back in 2014 Index received permission to visit Topház where they found close to idyllic conditions. The patients were taken for excursions in the nearby forests, and physical therapists were working with some of them. The dining room was spotless and the children well dressed. Today they realize that the “show” was most likely organized for their benefit. With the exception of a few prearranged visits, Topház as well as all other facilities are closed to outsiders. For example, MDCA began their quest to receive permission to visit the premises on June 26, 2016. At that point, the director of Topház “expressed openness to collaborate” but two days later withdrew the invitation. It seems that the Directorate-General for Social Care and Child Protection (Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság/SZGYF) forbade him to allow MDAC’s visit.

After the initial denial MDAC wrote to the director of SZGYF seven times between July 1 and September 9, 2016. Then, on October 20, MDAC wrote to Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and social inclusion in the ministry of human resources, asking for a personal meeting. They received no answer. So, on November 3, MDAC wrote to Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, with copies to the Hungarian ombudsman and the Fidesz MP who chairs the parliamentary committee on persons with disabilities. This letter was also sent to a number of MPs in the hope that one of them would be willing to accompany the staff of MDAC to Topház since MPs have free access to such facilities. In theory, at least.

Bernadett Szél (LMP) agreed to go along, but when the group arrived in Göd, the deputy director of SZGYF, accompanied by the new director and the head nurse of the facility, were at the gate. They refused to let the monitoring team in. After Szél made a telephone call to the deputy undersecretary for social policy, the MP was allowed in for a short time while the monitoring team waited for her outside the gate.

In February 2017 permission was at last granted. After several preliminary visits, the MDAC team spent a whole day, April 18, 2017, inside the facility with “minimal supervision.”

Not even the presence of MP Bernadett Szél was enough to let MDAC enter the facility

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the horror story. Although the ministry of human resources, after reading MDAC’s report, suspended the director of the facility and promised that the facility would be closed as soon as possible, Zoltán Balog didn’t think the case needed his special attention. MDAC’s request to meet with him was denied. He sent Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and inclusion, to meet them–of all places–in front of the parliament building. He declined MDAC’s request to live stream the meeting, but he did promise access to the other facilities. However, “Mr. Czibere stressed that there would be ‘conditions’ to such access.”

The official state propaganda machine, Magyar Idők, chimed in on the incident. The first article, published yesterday, did say that the ministry of human resources had admitted “extremely bad conditions” in the facility, but the author felt compelled to point out that MDAC had been founded in 2002 by–drum roll–George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The paper also reported that several relatives of the patients had “rejected the accusations” in social media, and the paper managed to find a mother who spends three days a week at the facility. She testified that the employees of the facility have the best interests of the children in mind and there is not the slightest sign of neglect. So, reads the headline, “Is this a new smear campaign against our homeland?”

Magyar Idők’s second article, published today, was even more accusatory. This time the journalist said that MDAC’s visit was illegal and complained that the monitoring group should have gotten in touch with the ombudsman instead of snooping around the facility and “releasing information and pictures to The New York Times.” (In fact, the NYT simply republished the AP report I referenced at the beginning of this post.) In order to minimize the gravity of the situation, the author spent about half the article on a 1998 report of the ombudsman which pointed out that even at that time “the number of staff members is inadequate; the children don’t receive toys; there are too many beds with high railings; and the patients are overmedicated.” Finally, he repeated the claim that since one of the supporters of MDAC is Soros’s Open Society Foundation, “it is possible that—even if the charges are well founded—the goal is the disparagement of Hungary.”

This case is living testament to the necessity of having NGOs like MDAC, without which we would have known absolutely nothing about the dreadful conditions in Topház. As it is, the Hungarian government did its best to prevent us from ever learning about the true state of affairs in one of the state-run facilities for the mentally disabled.

May 6, 2017

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 2017